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Ruthie Tompson, an animator with the longest history at Disney, dies at 111

Ruthie Tompson at a screening at the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival on April 28, 2018 in Hollywood, California. The legendary Disney animator passed away on Sunday at the age of 111.
Stefanie Keenan
Getty Images for TCM
Ruthie Tompson at a screening at the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival on April 28, 2018 in Hollywood, California. The legendary Disney animator passed away on Sunday at the age of 111.

Ruthie Tompson liked to tell people that she and Mickey Mouse "grew up together."

And that wasn't an exaggeration: The legendary animator spent nearly 40 years with the Walt Disney Company, working on virtually every film from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to The Rescuers until her retirement in 1975. She even earned the title "Disney Legend" at the turn of the millennium, as the employee with the longest history with Walt and Roy O. Disney.

Tompson's connection with the company dates back to her childhood in the 1920s, when she appeared as a live-action reference model for Disney's early Alice Comedies. She began her career in the "ink and paint" department as a teenager and eventually worked her way up to animation and scene checking, becoming one of the first three women to be admitted into the Hollywood camera union in the process.

"The best way to describe Ruthie is simply 'remarkable,' " said author and Disney historian Mindy Johnson. "She was perhaps the last link from the earliest origins of animation in Hollywood. Ruthie was a living witness and vital contributor to the progress and growth of the animation industry as we know it today."

Tompson died Sunday at the age of 111. She "passed away peacefully in her sleep" in her home at the Motion Picture and Television Fund in Woodland Hills, Calif., Disney said in a statement. She is survived by two nieces and a nephew.

Bob Iger, the executive chairman of The Walt Disney Company, remembered her as "a legend among animators."

"While we will miss her smile and wonderful sense of humor, her exceptional work and pioneering spirit will forever be an inspiration to us all," he said.

Curiosity led to her big break

Tompson's family moved from Boston to California when she was eight (she remembered celebrating the end of World War I there while wearing a face mask, because of the flu pandemic). And, intriguingly for Tompson, their new Hollywood home happened to be close to the fledgling Disney Bros. Studio.

As she recalled in a 2010 oral history, Tompson saw two women through a storefront at the studio who were painting and was immediately curious, coming back every day to try to catch a glimpse. She said she "snooped around" so much that somebody — "I think it was Walt" — eventually invited her inside.

"I saw how the fellows flipped the drawings," she explained. "Les Clark and Ub Iwerks were there, and Roy was in the back shooting what the girls were painting over backgrounds. As a kid, I was fascinated. I'd sit on the bench beside Roy, he had an apple box for me to sit on, and as it got late, he would say 'I think you'd better go home. Your mother probably wants you to come home for dinner.'"

She also remembered that the Disneys would take pictures of neighborhood kids running and playing, for animation purposes. Their reward was a quarter or 50-cent piece, which Tompson promptly brought to the candy store to exchange for licorice.

Fast forward a few years, and 18-year-old Tompson was working at Dubrock's Riding Academy. Walt and Roy Disney often played polo there, and spotted her in front of the check-in desk.

According to a 2010 Vanity Fair piece, Walt "recognized her signature Buster Brown haircut from her childhood appearance in one of his early silent films" and offered her a job in the ink and paint department.

"I don't care if you can draw or not," she recalled him saying. "We'll teach you what we want you to do."

Decades of hard work and happy memories

Tompson's first full-length animated feature was also the studio's: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which premiered in 1937. She later called it her favorite film to revisit over the years, remembering, "We worked into the night, day after day, until we got it exactly right!"

Tompson was quickly promoted to final checker, a position that involved reviewing the animation cels before they were photographed onto film.

She later transferred to animation and scene planning, where she was recognized for her mechanical talents and adept skill at guiding camera movements. Tompson was invited to join the International Photographers Union (Local 659 of the IATSE) in 1952, and became one of the first three women to be admitted.

"I've often said, Ruthie was our computer before computers were invented," said Floyd Norman, a fellow Disney Legend and the company's first Black animator. "Whatever the technical problem, Ruthie could usually solve it."

Some of the biggest feature films Tompson worked on include Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Sleeping Beauty, Mary Poppins, The Aristocats and Robin Hood. She retired from Disney in 1975 and worked on projects for other studios in the decade that followed.

Animation news site Cartoon Brewreports that Tompson kept busy during her later years at the Motion Picture and Television Fund Country House, applying her skills to the in-house Channel 22 and trying to raise $110,000 during the pandemic for an onsite post-production suite at its TV and video facility.

She was also honored in 2017 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, alongside other women of the early animation industry.

Tompson celebrated her 110th birthday last year with decorations honoring her two favorite things: Disney and the Los Angeles Dodgers. She said at the time that she didn't want to be revered for her age — but rather, known for "who I am."

And she offered a bit of life advice, gathered from her own century-plus of experience:

"Have fun. Try to do as much as you can for yourself. Remember all the good things in life."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.

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